In 2005, the Monster was born. Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle had just used his powerful budget bill veto pen to turn a proposed stoplight in the Village of Oregon into “The Department of Administration can spend $427 million any way they want.”
Immediately, state legislators began to realize how the Governor’s partial veto power upset the balance of power between the branches of government. The Governor’s ability to cherry pick parts of sentences to create laws never intended by the legislature usurped their ability to speak for their constituents.
In July of 2005, senate staffers met to figure out how to pitch a constitutional amendment to correct this veto practice by the governor. I was among them. I had already been over to the Legislative Reference Bureau library and researched the legislative history of proposals to rein in the governor’s partial veto. We decided we should re-introduce a 1991 joint resolution authored by Democrats during the Tommy Thompson administration – many of whom were still in the legislature. This would pressure Democrats into passing it. If we changed a word of the resolution, Democrats could argue we were changing the intent of what they originally proposed for a Republican governor. The resolution, as written fourteen years earlier by Democrats, prohibited the governor from using parts of sentences to form a completely new sentence – exactly what Doyle had done in the most recent budget.
The next step was coming up with a hook – something that the press and constituents could understand. As noted, efforts had been made in the past to do what we were trying to do – to little avail. Somehow, “altering the governor’s partial veto authority” hadn’t exactly set the public’s imagination on fire. After a brief brainstorming session, we settled on calling it “The Frankenstein Veto,” as the practice created monstrous new laws by stitching together old sentences. We shopped the idea around to other senate offices, and they agreed to use it (although Senator Scott Fitzgerald demanded the ability to pronounce it “Fron – ken –shteen,” as they do in the Mel Brooks movie.)
My boss at the time, Senator Harsdorf, was very hesitant to use the term. She’s a wonderful legislator, but also very serious about her work. She was justifiably wary of this serious bill becoming too cartoonish. I jokingly offered her a dollar for every time she used the term. Slowly, she started to come around.
On July 30th, a column by Mike Nichols appeared in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that used the term publicly for the first time. A Lexis-Nexis search shows that the term has been used in the Journal-Sentinel and the Wisconsin State Journal 178 times since then, in large part due to a crusade by the State Journal to outlaw the practice. The “Frankenstein Veto” has been featured in editorial cartoons and news reports for the past two years. Somebody showed up at the public hearing on the amendment dressed as Frankenstein’s monster – I actually went to a Halloween party where someone went as the “Frankenstein Veto.” Wisconsinites from Amery to Wyocena were starting to understand the concept of the partial veto. As a result, the amendment is poised to pass the State Senate early next year and go to the voters for approval – something that was incomprehensible just two years ago.
The lesson in all this is the following: If you want a bill passed, give it a mascot. People may be slow to understand the intricacies of the governor’s veto authority, but they certainly understand how Dr. Frankenstein breathed life into his monster.
Perhaps the most telling indication of the success of the “Frankenstein” term is how it is now being misused. As noted, the amendment applies to a very specific use of veto authority – stitching together words to form a new sentence. There are still options for the governor to use, such as vetoing words within a sentence to change the meaning of the sentence. Yet because the current proposed amendment doesn’t change that practice, some have said that it doesn’t “kill Frankenstein.” Interesting that they would presume to tell the authors of the bill what their own term means.
In fact, when the legislature gets around to prohibiting the governor from punching holes within sentences by vetoing individual words, I have a few suggestions:
The “swiss cheese” veto
The “donut hole” veto
The “Mike Tyson Punch Out” veto
In fact, the whole mascot trend could help both parties, if they took a cue from Smokey the Bear, Mr. Yuk, and the AFLAC Duck. Who could say no to funding the “domestic partner benefits kangaroo,” or supporting the “end partial birth abortion lemur?” You think the legislature could have turned down the Taxpayers Bill of Rights had it been represented by an alligator wearing sunglasses? Think again. Of course, once every cause has its own mascot, the good government groups will demand legislation seeking to lessen the influence of cartoon beavers on the legislative process.